Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On hiatus again

Once again we're into the summer, and that means outdoor activities. Especially for Eric, as he has younger kids. One of the advantages of having older kids is that they come and go as they want, and have the transportation to do it, so I get more free time for gaming than Eric does.

All that boils down to Eric having to take a break again as he just doesn't have the time for gaming any more. In the meantime, I've found another outlet for my energies.

Monday, March 5, 2012

C&C:Nappy again

Eric's choice again, and he wanted to revisit GMT's Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, specifically the new Spanish expansion, which adds the, umm, Spanish to the British, French, and Portuguese from the original game. I'm rather partial to C&C:N, having played it with Eric previously, although it was never blogged, so I was more than happy to give it a whirl.

Not a great deal in the way of new rules, the biggest is the addition of rules for the Spanish guerrillas, which allow the Spanish player to get chits which may be played to cancel the French player's card, effectively making him miss a turn. The Spanish themselves are just slightly weaker than the British or French, and retreating further when required.

Eric picked the Espinosa de los Monteros scenario, and off we went, with me taking the British/Spanish. I started with a slight push on the right, with a combined British/Spanish force, immediately taking effective fire. This must have caused casualties in the leadership of those units, as they were paralyzed into inaction, and were manhandled by the French. (I didn't get any more 'Right' cards until half way the game.) He jumped out to an early lead in flags.

Instead I started on the left flank, achieving some success in wrecking his right. However, my cavalry advance didn't go so well, and I had to retire with a single block remaining from my two units. I also made a good push in the middle, taking some good ground, and killing units. Eric reinforced from his left, and I had to retire to better ground.

By this time we were at 6 flags each, needing 7 for the win. I had a good artillery card, but was waiting for a good opportunity to use it on a weak unit. That opportunity never came, however, as Eric always had his weakened units screened by strong units. In the end, I decided to risk all, as I played a cavalry charge with my single remaining block, and was able to successfully attack an infantry unit, also with a single block, for the final winning flag.

It was still early in the evening, so we switched it around, and had another go.

This time I played it very conservatively as the French, trying to suck the Spanish on my left into my units in good terrain, having a couple of good defensive cards in hand. However, Eric wasn't having any of that, and gave me no opportunities, playing it equally cautiously.

Instead I tried to press in the middle, scoring some good hits to start with, but then my fire failed completely, as I scored no hits in 10 dice (!). At that point I decided to retire to ensure I didn't lose units, even though he was also weak.

Eric had tried a little advance on his left, but his Spanish militia didn't fare well, leaving a couple of units with only a single block. Eventually I found 2 Cavalry Charge cards in my hand, and I maneuvered my cavalry over to my right, where they were unleashed to devastating effect on the weakened units on that flank, managing to eliminate the 4 units required for the win in a combination of attacks and breakthrough combats.

After this session, I don't think my attitude to C&C:N has changed any. I still think this is my favorite of all the C&C flavors I've played. The continual tweaking that the system has seen has brought it to a pinnacle, removing a few of my little annoyances. e.g. units now reduce the dice they roll in combat as they suffer losses - far better. Whilst I've always enjoyed C&C:Ancients, it's always felt very light and short on the simulation front. C&C:N has rectified that, such that it now feels like a war-game; a highly abstracted one, yes, but certainly a game where you are rewarded for applying general military principles. In an abstract way. Yep, several thumbs up here.

The rains in Spain fall mainly on the plains

This post won't be one of my longer ones. Events in real life have delayed this post a bit, and I don't really have a whole lot to say, in any case.

It was my choice, and I wanted to give the new Spanish Army expansion to Command and Colors: Napoleonics a run. We'd played C&C:N a few months ago, and I may have given it a bit of a short shift.

C&C:N might be the most complex of the entire series of games. The minor tweaks in unit capabilities between the armies lead to a very different play style for each army. The French need to charge in, British prefer to stand and shoot, and the Spanish, we've discovered, need to play with finesse.

The way the game changes how many combat dice you roll depending on how many blocks you have left, whether you moved or not, and whether you're in close combat give a number levers and dials that can be tweaked to modify unit performance. And Richard Borg has done a very good job moving around those levers and dials.

The Spanish army is best on its home turf: rough terrain. It can't stand up to the French toe to toe on open ground, so ducking in and around terrain is the way to go. The catch, of course, is surviving that ducking around terrain long enough to get a decent volley off before slinking back again.

The other tweak the Spanish expansion adds is Guerrilla warfare. This allows the Spanish player to disrupt French orders by turning in a chit. The French player gets a die roll: if it's swords, nothing happens, otherwise the French player effectively loses his turn. The card he was trying to play is discarded, and his turn is over. The Spanish player can be awarded Guerrilla chits during setup or when playing a Recon card. Instead of drawing two cards and discarding one, the Spanish player can draw one card and take a chit instead.

Don't forget to use these chits.

Had I remembered, I likely would have won our second battle when I played as the Spanish. Mike won the game with two consecutive cavalry charges at the end to finish things off. Stopping either of those likely would have tipped the game my way. It was that close.

If you liked CC:N, the Spanish expansion gives a nice tweak to the game. If you didn't, I don't know this will change your mind. It doesn't fundamentally change the game, but gives a third army with a very different style of play. I'm hoping the three upcoming expansions (Russian, Austrian, Prussian) will provide the same variances.

I'm going to have to get this to the table more. I'm liking it more every time I play.

Mike's choice after this (and the subject of my next post) is Breakthrough: Cambrai.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Simple, pimple

Next on the table was my choice, and, after playing complex treatments of various battles and campaigns, I wanted to try the new Martin Wallace war game, Test of Fire. This is a simple treatment of the first battle of the American Civil War, Bull Run (for you Yankee northerners) or Manasses (for you Rebel southerners). 

And ToF is certainly a simple game. With just 5 pages of rules it’s easy to pick up. The player rolls dice at the start of the turn (4 for the Confederate player, 5 for the Union), and that dictates the actions that can be performed that turn.

1 – Draw a card
2,3 - Activate an area with artillery for fire
4,5 - Activate an area for movement
6 - Activate an area containing a leader for either artillery fire or movement, as above

Artillery fire is pretty simple. Choose the area with an artillery unit; choose the target area; roll 2 dice, with a 5 or 6 scoring a hit; roll each hit to determine effect, a 6 being a loss, anything else means 1 unit in the target area has to retreat.

Movement is equally simple. Any units in the activated area may move to any adjacent areas. However, there are some border limits, with the normal limit being 2 units. Rivers and some rough terrain borders allow only 1 unit to move across per movement action; Roads allow 3 units to cross. These are all marked on the map.

Combat happens when there are units from both sides in an area, and may be performed at the end of any action. Note the 'may' in that sentence, it's where one of the game choices come in. If you have 2 movement actions available, you could perform one move then perform combat, and if the area is clear, activate that area for movement again. Or you could choose to use each action to move units into the enemy held area, and then perform the combat. After all actions are done,any area containing units from both sides must have combat.

Combat resolution, as you might expect, features yet more dice. First the defender, then the attacker rolls 2 dice for each unit, up to a maximum of 6 dice. As with artillery fire, each 5 or 6 scores a hit, except now a loss is scored on a 4-6, and a retreat on 1-3. The attacker applies his losses and retreats before rolling his combat. If there are units left from both sides after combat, then the attacker has to retreat back to his originating area(s).

So, as you might expect, getting lots of move actions are vital to force the river crossings and take the hills, where the border limits are reduced. Otherwise you're going to have only a single attacking unit against all those likely defenders.

Finally, the cards. As usual in these sorts of games, they just perform wacky stuff or otherwise add benefits. They may allow extra dice to be rolled in artillery fire or combat; cancel a retreat; perform extra moves; cancel an opponent's action die; or allow a roll for victory and end the game (rolling less than the number of units your opponent has lost).

With a projected game time of 45 minutes, our plan was to play this twice, playing each side. However, I missed one critical rule (that the 'standard' area border limit was 2 units, not 3 units), so we restarted after being 30 minutes into the evening. Second time around, my union forces found the 'Ford' card quickly, which allows the border limit on one river crossing to be increased by 1, and was able to force the Rebels off Sudley Hill to take the first victory area. From there it was a grind along the river to take the second victory area before the game ended, which is when one player runs out his card deck, with a simple majority of the three victory areas required for a win. This full game took around an hour, as we futzed a little with the rules, and we chose not to turn it around, having played enough.

OK, this isn't a game that any even semi-serious gamer is going to base a play date on. It's simple to the point of being simplistic. It makes no real effort to model command and control, and the combat system is laughable to any grognard. However, if you have 45 minutes to kill, or are playing with kids or non-wargamers, I can see this hitting the table. It's easy to pick up, and the action dice dictate your options in any single turn, so you're never overwhelmed by potential options and decisions.

Yet, even at 45 minutes I think it outstays its welcome by around 10-15 minutes. Other than a few choices on the card plays, everything is dictated by the dice, with very few real decisions to make. And that's a lot of dice you're going to roll. So many, in fact, that I'm not sure that any decisions you make have any real bearing on the outcome of the game.

If I were going to a gaming retreat, I think I'd throw it in the bag. For those occasions when you don't have time, space, or the mental capacity, to play anything deeper. It just might come out then.

FAB: Siciliy

Eric's choice again, and he decided that next on the table would be the recent release from GMT, FAB: Siciliy, the second in the Fast Action Battles series, the first being FAB: Bulge, which I'm rather fond of after a couple of excellent games.

The first thing to note is that the rules have changed very little from the first game in the series. Although I hadn't played FAB:B for a year or so, the mechanisms came back quickly, and we didn't have to do much rule referring pretty quickly.

Additions to the FAB: Bulge rules are fairly minimal. Some rules for landings, and for the wobbly Italian morale, but that’s about it. Air units have been moved from distinct units to become assets, so they’re handled as part of the standard rules. Overall, pretty easy to play, and the rules are well presented, and thorough. Once you’ve been through the move/combat processes it sticks in the brain quite easily.

We spent an evening getting back into the FAB ruleset, playing the tournament scenario, then played the full campaign game over another couple of shortish evenings. Perhaps 5 hours for the full game, with a little rules confirmation and kibitzing. That first game played pretty quickly, although I was a trifle concerned that it was rather easy for the Allies to win. 

The Axis player has 8VPs at the start of the game: 5 from areas that score for both players (Termini Imerese, Caltanissetta, Catania, Val di Catania, and Niscemi); and 3 that only score for the Axis player (Syracuse, Palermo, Marsala). The Allied player has 0VPs at start. 1VP is also awarded for killing any large block, one that starts the game with 3 or more steps. The current victory level is determined by subtracting the higher score from the lower, so the Axis player starts with a net 8VP lead. So, for example, if the Allied player captures Niscemi, the score is 7VPs to 1VP, for a net Axis lead of 6VPs.

In the tournament scenario, the Allied player wins if the net score is 3VPs to the Axis player, or less, after 5 turns. Capturing Syracuse is 1VP, and Niscemi and Val di Catania are 2VPs each (1 lost by the Axis player and 1 gained by the Allied player). So, capturing those 3 areas give an Allied victory. Given that the British land in Syracuse, Niscemi is adjacent to Gela, an Allied landing area, and Val di Catania is only 2 areas from Syracuse, it doesn't appear too hard.

And indeed it wasn't. By the end of the 3rd turn (I think it was) my Allies had already done enough for the victory. The last couple of turns were just playing it out. The Allies have the stronger force, better assets, and a higher replacement rate. The Axis have a couple of good German blocks, but mostly just weak Italian garrison blocks. I don't recall any outrageous fortune on either side.

For the full campaign game we switched sides, but the outcome was pretty much the same. Requiring to get a net score in their favor to win, the Allies took Syracuse and Niscemi quickly. However, they had trouble getting into Val di Catania as I rolled like a demon with the strong forces there, rolling above average to score 5 or 6 hits in his first couple of attempts, and Eric chose to call off the attack rather than take the large losses.

By the time it fell during turn 6, Eric had also captured Caltanissetta and killed an Italian large block. That made the scores 4VPs against 4VPs, for a net 0VP, meaning Eric had 3 turns to score a single VP for the win.

There then followed 3 turns of ‘find the weak block’, which Eric totally failed at, as I successfully played a shell game. He also attacked into Catania, but, once again, I rolled well in my defenses and repulsed him each time. In the final turn it came down to Eric needing to roll 5 hits in 8 dice on a 50/50 chance in his at ton Catania. For pretty much the first time in the game he got the roll, captured Catania, as well as removing a large block, swinging the score by 3 VPs for a Decisive Victory.

I have several issues with the game.

Despite rolling like a demon for most of the game, the Axis still lost. If I’d been rolling averagely, the Allies would have captured Val di Catania, and been attacking Catania, a turn or two earlier, and won that much sooner. Eric rolled on or below average for most of the game. If he’d been on average, he would likely have killed more blocks and won that way. Yes, it was very close in the end, and Eric pretty much won with a Hail Mary, but if he'd been able to guess where my weak blocks were, and roll average on his attacks, he would have found the required VP there. The balance of luck was with the Axis, and they still lost. After just I single play I can’t say the game is unbalanced, but I’m sure not able to see how the Axis can win. They have to protect the VP areas, but doing that loses blocks, so they lose either way.

The second issue is that the game is very small. The British zone from Catania north is 1 area wide, and only 2 areas wide below that, so they have no real maneuver options. The US forces have more room to maneuver, but won’t get too far given the length of the game. Generally, the US has a choice of one or two areas to attack in, sometimes not even that. The only real choices are in the shuffling of the blocks, and how to assign assets, not in any choice of strategy.

Another issue is the VPs for large blocks losses. At the end of the game, I’ve seen it devolve into a search for the weak units for that final VP, quite common in our FAB:B games. Just feels a little off.

And that brings me to the biggest challenge I have with the game; it doesn’t cover the whole Sicily campaign, stopping about half way to the actual German withdrawal. That leaves an odd taste to the game; just as you think it’s getting interesting, it’s over. The US forces never get a real chance to drive to Palermo and capture the island; the Axis never really have to play a fighting withdrawal. The campaign just feels half done.

Overall, the FAB system works, and it’s a cool system, I like it. But Sicily just doesn’t work as well as Bulge, Not enough options, too small an area, not enough play, and it’s over before it gets interesting. I think I’d play it again, as with familiarity of the rules you can fit it into an evening, so it’s a good length, but I’d far prefer to play FAB: Bulge.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It doesn't quite float off the table

For our latest session, Mike had wanted to give Martin Wallace's latest game, Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861, a go. This is an American Civil War game covering the first battle of the war: First Battle of Bull Run. (Or, First Manassas, depending on your perspective. The Union tended to name battles after rivers/creeks, the Confederates named them after the nearest town.)

This is not a big game. It fits the typical Wallace mold being somewhat abstract and rules-light. The board is only 14x20 or so, and it's area movement. In fact, movement is reminiscent of a block game: area-to-area, with a limit on the number of units that can cross any particular border during a move. These border limits change depending on terrain.

Each force is represented by a number of identical 2-step infantry units, a couple artillery units, and a leader. (The confederates have a 2nd leader as an optional rule that we didn't try.)

The Southern force is parked south of the Bull Run, and the North is trying to take two of three VP hexes on the other side. There are also auto-victory conditions if either side occupies the other's camp.

The turn sequence is pretty simple:

  1. Roll a number of six-sided dice (3 for the Rebels, 4 for the Union), to determine what actions are available to you that turn.

  2. Perform those actions

The actions are Draw a Card, Fire Artillery, Move, and General (Activate your leader, or draw a card – sort of a wild card draw) The first and last of those happen one time in six, the middle actions happen two times in six.

Units move one area per order, and can be ordered as many times as you have Move orders that turn. The cards do things like give you extra dice, provide additional move orders, allow you to ignore retreats, etc. Nothing game breaking, but little performance tweaks.

If you move into an area containing enemy units, there's combat after all orders are completed. Defenders fire first, two dice per unit, generally hitting on 5s or 6s. After you generate hits, you re-roll those dice, with a 50/50 shot of each hit being a retreat or step loss. The surviving attackers then do the exact same thing. There are minor terrain modifiers, but nothing that really breaks that mold. The only extra rule is there is a cap of 6 dice rolled for any one combat. You can't raise this max for any reason, including card play.

The game does a pretty good job of simulating how ACW warfare generally went: repeated assaults of a defensive position until either the attackers wear out or the defenders break. It's very rules light – I knew very little about the game, and Mike was able to teach it in 10 minutes. It plays in around 45-60 minutes.

Sounds pretty good, right? Here's the problem. You roll a LOT of dice. Buckets and buckets of them. Our original plan, as the game is so short, was to play the game once, switch sides, and play again. I just couldn't face another ¾ hour of rolling dice. So we bailed after one playing.

That said, this game fills a rather particular niche – it's a good 45-minute filler game for two people. I wouldn't seek it out as a featured game for an evening, by any means, but if I was at an all-day event and had just shy of an hour to kill before something meatier, I'd certainly play it. And it's, what, a $30 list price? That's not too shabby.

Another niche it fills is to lure in young players. Once my kids have a slightly better grasp of tactics (a handful more plays of Memoir '44 should help) then I could certainly see playing this game with them. The order system limits the “oh my god I have so many choices” problem that can give wargames a high barrier to entry, the rules are simple, and kids love rolling dice.

So, not a big winner of a game, but good amusement nonetheless.

Next up is C&C Napoleonics again. We're taking the Spanish expansion for a test run. Plus, I think this entry in the C&C system needs a closer look.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sicily calls us again

Mike and I returned to the table these last few weeks with GMT's latest release, Fast Action Battles: Sicily.

I'd played the first FAB game, The Bulge, a couple times soon after it was released, and felt it to be a very solid, if not quite spectacular, game. It certainly brought some new life to the block game genre with fresh concepts like asset chits and a move away from the buckets of dice, A/B/C combat resolution you get in most block games.

I do remember a ton of hype surrounding FAB:Bulge right after it came out, which eventually settled in, and the game's rating on BGG stabilized (it's now the #84 ranked wargame). While not the greatest thing since sliced bread (That is DAK2), it's a quite accessible and quick Bulge game, and I've certainly been looking forward to Sicily coming to market.

As long-time readers on here are aware, Mike and I played the OCS: Sicily game to completion a couple years ago. I hadn't played any other game that tackles Operation Husky, so I was definitely eager to see how a higher-level, and simpler, game would handle the largest amphibious invasion of WWII.

And so, the game hit the table last month. We took one session playing the tournament scenario to get the feel for how things went, then switched sides and played the campaign games over a couple evenings.

So how does the game play?

At the beginning of each turn, both sides draw a number of asset chits from a cup. The Allied quantity never changes throughout play, but the Axis steadily draws fewer and fewer assets. These assets cover pretty much everything that isn't a full combat unit: air and naval support, engineering, artillery, detachments, replacements, “special” actions that could be a number of activities, etc. These assets are either used or eliminated, depending on what happens to them during the turn. If used, they're put back into the cup at the end of the turn, possibly to be drawn again. If eliminated, they're probably done for the game.

Many times, the detachments we drew filled the role of ablative armor as losing full units costs you a VP and losing assets doesn't. (Directly, at least. Diminishing support over time has its own drawbacks, of course.) Engineers are handy for blowing bridges, and there's a couple places on the map where that's almost a required tactic. (It's not as prevalent as in the Bulge, but close.)

After assets are drawn, the phasing player has an admin phase to do various actions that don't involve moving or combat. Then the non-phasing player has a go. Finally, movement, reserve movement, combat, breakouts, and supply. After all that, you draw chits again (though about half the number) and the Axis player has his turn, reversing the roles of phasing and non-phasing player. After that's done, you do a VP check and continue on to the next turn if needed.

How were our sessions?

When we played the tournament scenario, Mike took the Allies, and had a relatively easy go of things, though he only won by one VP. (VP ranges in this game seem to run +/- 8). The campaign game is the first five turns of the nine-turn full campaign, and covers the initial breakout after the landings.

Turns out we'd played a particular rule wrong (though I can't for the life of me remember what it was) which made things a little easier on the Allies. Given the tourney scenario took us less than 3 hours to play, we figured the campaign would be easily played over a couple evening sessions, and we were right. So, the next week we swapped sides (by random choice) and played the campaign.

The starting situation has the Axis with 8 VP. VPs are scored through control of certain areas, and elimination of large units (anything with three or more steps.) Some areas score points for either side controlling them, some only score for one side or the other. So taking some areas provides a two-point swing, others only one. That part of things is a tad confusing, but if you use the control markers properly, they should be pretty easy to count up. The Allied goal is to drop the VP counter below zero, and back up onto the Allied side – the more VPs you have, the more significant your victory.

During our campaign, I probably wasn't quite as aggressive as I could have been as the Allies, but I was still making decent progress. Around turn 6 (of 9) I had the VP counter down to 1, and things were looking pretty good. However, I stalled out big time up until the last turn, and going into turn 9, we were sitting at a flat 0 score. I had two or three opportunities to pick up a point, and the first two failed miserably. The final assault up the east coast was going to decide the game. I had eight dice that would hit on a 50/50 chance, and I needed five hits to force a victory. Anything less would be a draw. I ended up with a good final roll providing six hits, which actually gained me another 3 VP through unit death and taking a critical area. So, while I scored a major victory, it was literally that close to a draw.


The game plays remarkably similar to FAB: Bulge. There were very few core rule changes, but the game-specific changes make the game. Rules are in place to enforce the animosity between the US and British/Canadian forces that existed in the actual operation. There are areas of the map that are forbidden to one side or the other, and other areas that have to be explicitly opened up before units can move in there. This does a much better job of simulating the operational restrictions the two forces were under than approached by anything in the OCS title. The difficulty of taking difficult terrain (particularly behind blown bridges) was quite clear. Overall, I felt it gave an excellent feel to how this campaign actually panned out.

After you've given the introductory and tournament scenarios a go, expect the campaign game to take you four to six hours. Probably closer to four after more plays.

Mike commented when we were done that he couldn't see what he could have done differently as the Axis defender. When I pointed out that we nearly had a draw, he realized he wouldn't need to do much more. More play will naturally start fleshing out any balance issues that might result. And given it's only a 4-5 hour game, it will probably see more play than most. It is a tad disappointing that the campaign game does not last the full historical length of Operation Husky – you never get to the point where the Axis started withdrawing units into Italy. It would be cool if GMT released an expansion that let you play it all the way through, but the game still stands well as is.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eagles striking

My choice again, and for this week I proposed the recent Academy Games release, Strike of the Eagle. This covers the struggle between the Polish and the Soviets in 1920, although strictly speaking the term 'Soviet' didn't come into existence until 1922. I had played this recently with another gaming friend, and I thought that Eric would enjoy it.

SotE is, at heart, a block game in the Columbia tradition, played over a very good looking point-to-point mounted map, split into two fronts, north and south. The strengths (from 1-4 Strength Points - SPs) and types (Infantry, Cavalry or Leader) of the blocks are hidden, and they are rotated to reflect losses and/or additions. Unlike most block games, however, combat losses are not dictated by dice, but on a flat table, which dictates the losses inflicted for a particular attacking strength. All well and good, and pretty standard so far, but SotE adds 2 mechanisms.

The first is the orders mechanism used in A Game of Thrones. Each player has a number of order tokens that are used to command the armies, placing two orders per front. These include orders to move, defend, recover (steps), use rail, etc., and they are placed face-down, which provides an additional level to the fog-of-war aspect. You can see that orders have been placed on a group of blocks, but you have no idea whether they have been ordered to advance, defend, or fall back. Orders are revealed in a specific sequence, with the player with initiative deciding who plays first when revealing orders of a each type.

The second mechanism is the addition of cards, and it's a card supported game, rather than a card driven game (CDG). Each card has several potential uses, and as in most CDGs, can only be used for one of them. They can be used to increase the number of orders that can be placed on a front, in battle resolution as a combat modifier, to gain reinforcement points, or for the text on the card. This last can be either a historical event, a battle event, or a reaction card, which can be played at the times specified on the card for the defined effects (e.g. place additional orders, switching orders, prevent execution of enemy orders, etc.). Of course, the best cards are strong in all three options.

Each game turn has a card draw phase (draw 6, discard down to a maximum of 7), 5 Operations Phases (where the meat of the game is played), then a Reinforcement Phase. The Operations Phase is:
  • Initial Card Play: each player may play a card on each front, starting with the non-initiative player for the northern front, initiative player north, then the same for the southern front; in the same sequence any played cards are revealed and the player states how they are being used, either for the Historical Event (after which the card is removed), to increase the number of orders for that front; or for reinforcement cubes, to add SPs at the end of the turn
  • Order Placement: starting with the northern front again, the player with initiative declares who will place the first order, then they alternate until the full complement of order tokens determined from the previous step have been placed; then the same is done with the southern front
  • Order Execution: Order tokens are resolved in the following sequence, with the northern front again being done first, then the southern front:
    • Forced March: initiative player decides who goes first; blocks move one extra space, but fight at half strength (round down); orders are either 'To' or 'Out'; the former is placed on the target are, and any blocks within range may move to that area; the latter is placed on the area with the blocks to be moved, and they may be moved to different areas
    • Recon: initiative player decides who goes first; if this is placed on an enemy-occupied area then the blocks have to be shown
    • Move: initiative player decides who goes first; blocks move 1 space for infantry, or two spaces for cavalry; once again, there are 'To' and 'Out' orders
    • Withdraw: initiative player decides who goes first; units in a battle area may move out of the battle area, but lose 1SP; cavalry may ignore the loss if only attacked by infantry
    • Battles: battles are executed from smallest to largest, treating both fronts together; starting with the attacker each player may play a battle event card, then chooses whether to play a combat modifier card from hand, for a +1 value, or to draw from the deck; blocks and cards are revealed, each side calculates total strength and compares this to the loss chart to determine the number of SP losses caused; steps are lost, step by step from the strongest block at that moment, the loser determined, and retreats and advances performed; adjustments to the initiative and VP tracks are then made, and you continue to the next battle
    • Reorganize: initiative player decides who goes first; one block in the area marked with this order may gain 1SP
    • Rail Transport: initiative player decides who goes first; up to 4 blocks in the area may move up to 8 areas following rail lines; blocks may be moved to different areas
  • Supply: Blocks in areas that cannot trace a supply line to a Key City now lose 1SP per block; units that lose their last SP are removed, and 1VP is awarded to the opposing player; OoS blocks can only use Move Out, Withdraw, or Defend orders
  • Victory Points: the VP track is adjusted for changes of ownership of Key Cities
OK, I've glossed over a few bits of chrome, e.g. Fortifications and Garrisons, but that's about all you need to know to get started. SotE is that simple it's brilliant. A wonderful amalgam of mechanisms that leave you with deliciously angst-filled decisions to make. Fog-of-war on top of fog-of-war. What are those blocks in that area? A couple of weak brigades or are they full strength divisions? What order has been placed on them? Are they defending or planning to advance? What if they're cavalry and Force March, how far can they reach, especially knowing that there's a Reaction Event card that allows cavalry to move through enemy blocks? Should I use this card for the powerful Historical Event, or keep it for more orders? Or for the high combat modifier? Delicious, delicious, delicious. Eric and I played through the first 2 scenarios in one evening, then for our upcoming full day of gaming chose to play the full campaign, it excited us that much.

Now, if I could stop there, this would win game of the year, decade, and century, and could be my first '10' on BGG, it's that good. However, I can't because the rules are just plain goddamn awful. Atrocious. Ridiculously bad. More holes than a holey thing. SotE suffers from, to paraphrase Mr. Ballmer, "Development, Development, Development". Or, rather, the lack of it. This game is 2-3 months short in it's development, suffering from an obvious lack of play-testing, editing, and even rudimentary proof reading.

When I first looked at SotE, I got as far as the first actual rule, discounting the component descriptions, setup, and overviews, before I found that the example of play contradicted the actual rule. That gave me cause for concern, and it got worse. Confusing terminology; terms used to mean different things in different places; examples that don't agree with rules; play-aids that don't agree with rules; game situations that aren't covered. Not just in the rules, but in the cards as well. When I first played SotE we spent about half our afternoon wrangling over possible meanings of the rules, and what to do in situations that weren't covered. When I played Eric we found even more situations that had us scratching our heads. At least by this time a lot of questions had been answered on BGG and in the FAQ/Errata. However, on one BGG thread the Academy representative admitted that he hadn't decided what the rule should be yet. WTF? You've published the game and you still don't know what the rule should be?

Eric opined that the problem is that the rules were written to fit in the available 8 pages, but I'm not sure that I agree. In my view the biggest problem is that the verbiage is just plain bad, and a good editor would solve most of the issues by being consistent in term usage and clearer in the prose, and still fit within the 8 pages. The second big issue is that more (and better) play testing was required, especially blind play-testing, to find those areas that weren't covered adequately. (Heck, even I could see major rules omissions just from reading them, without even having to play it.) Again, judicious word choice and phrasing would have addressed the issues identified, without taking up copious amounts of extra space.

So, after SotE, and the preceding Conflict of Heroes farce (where the game rules had a major makeover from the first game to the second, substantially changing the game play), I now would not buy another game from Academy Games that hadn't hit at least a second edition. I'm done with buying games where I have to throw the rule book out and print a set of rules that could, and should, have been done right the first time. Chad Jensen, with his exemplary Combat Commander ruleset, has shown it can be done. It takes a commitment to doing it right, and not just pushing the product out the door.

The big question is whether these are the worst rules ever? We've excoriated Prussia's Defiant Stand from Worthington Games, Fury in the East from MMP, and The Devil's Cauldron, also from MMP, in the past, but in my view, SotE takes the prize. Mostly, however, that's because I really, really, like this game (just in case it wasn't clear by now), and it's frustrating as all get out to see it substantially reduced by a shoddy job in the final stretch to publication.

Overall verdict: go play this game; just don't buy it until the second edition hits the streets.

Oh, and in our game Eric's Poles resigned when it was clear after 4 turns that the Soviets were going to win an automatic win. But that's not important right now.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Block battle in Poland. Film at 11.

The last two times Mike and I have gotten together, it's been to go over the new block game from Academy Games, Strike of the Eagle (SotE). This game covers the Russian/Polish war that occurred just after World War 1.

Mike had been raving about this one, and he felt it would hit my sweet spot. So, bring it on.


SotE is a block game that incorporates mechanisms from a number of other games. It has the standard fog-of-war mechanisms you'd expect in a block game: rotating blocks for strength, and hidden unit information. The map is point-to-point instead of area, but that's a graphics detail. As with the Columbia family of block games you have a hand of cards refreshed at the beginning of each turn and optionally play one at the beginning of each round. The cards in SotE differ in that they can be used in multiple ways: Extra orders (more on that in a bit), an event, or for replacements. Cards also have events on them that can be used at other times.

Combat in SotE has far less wristage than in most block games. Instead of one die per strength point, multiple rounds, etc. you total your strength points, take into account any battle cards and tactical modifiers, play a card (in lieu of rolling a die), and consult a chart. It's still got some randomness, but there's a much smaller range of results. Also, combat is simultaneous. You then compare the amount of damage inflicted by either side to determine the combat winner. A much cleaner system than most block games.

The other primary part of the games is the order system. The map is separated onto two fronts, Northern and Southern. Each of these fronts gets, by default, two orders per round from the following set: (Force March To, Force March Out), (Recon), (Move To, Move Out), (Withdraw), Defend, (Reorganize), (Rail Transport). At the beginning of the round, you have the option to play a card on each front to trigger an event or add to the number of orders you can place. Of the two orders per front, one must be a Recon order. So, if you don't play a card on a front, you can only take one effective action. Given that you get either 6 (one front scenarios) or 12 (two front scenarios) cards on a turn for five rounds, and these cards can be used in many other ways, you're constantly making tough decisions on how to use your resources. You can never do everything you need to do, let alone want to do.

During a round, you first play a card (or not), then place orders, then execute the orders in the order listed by the parenthetical groups above. Where “Defend” is listed is where the combat phase happens. Combats are resolved from smallest to largest, determined by the number of blocks involved.

The first time Mike and I played SotE, we walked through the two training scenarios. I highly recommend doing this. The first only goes through the bulk of a single turn, while the second takes you through two full turns. Enough to see how the cards play out. We got through both of those in under three hours. I played the Russians in these scenarios. IIRC, they're pretty hard for the Poles. But, they're training scenarios so balance isn't a primary concern here.

As we were both off work, we took a full day over the holiday break to play the full campaign. In the rules, they recommend this as a 4-player game, and after playing it, I can see why. It's difficult to get your head around everything that's going on. The full game is six turns, but after three turns we called it. We were running around 2 hours per turn, and it was very clear Mike was going to win as the Russians by the end of turn 4. There wasn't anything left I could do to stop it. The campaign features very different situations on the two fronts – the Poles need to push hard in the south and survive in the north. And when I say push hard in the south, I mean recklessly hard. Russian reinforcements are coming, and you better get to Kiev before they do.

My reactions

I'm splitting my actions on this one into two categories. Pros and cons.


  • The mechanisms pulled together into this game work really well. The combination of orders and cards provides a great pacing system as well as constantly forcing you into tough decisions.
  • The large map provides a much larger scope of play than your typical block game. It feels grand tactical, bordering on strategic.
  • The combat system works. There's still some randomness (along with tough decisions – if you play a card as a combat die roll, it gets a +1 bonus. This is big when the cards run from 0 to 4) but it's contained within a small range.
  • The order system provides for a fair amount of bluffing. I haven't even gone into the initiative subsystem, but going first or last, having more orders, etc. makes placing orders a game unto itself.


  • The rules. It seems like we harp on this in half the games we play, but the rules writing in SotE is atrociously sloppy. And I'm being kind here. As an example, many times a VP award or some other action is determined by how much damage you “inflict” on an opponent. You would think this means the result you get from referring to the chart as I mentioned in the combat description. But it doesn't. It means the number of actual losses the other side took. If they reduced the damage you did through card play, Defend orders, or simply not being large enough to absorb all the damage, it's the number of losses they took that matters. As “inflict” is an outgoing verb, you wouldn't expect the result that's actually there. I won't even go into the amount of information missing from the retreat rules, or the inconsistent wording on the cards.

    Mike described these rules as the second worst he's ever seen after Prussia's Defiant Stand. I tend to agree. They (and the cards) need a complete once-over specifically looking for consistency and omissions. My belief is they locked in on a page count for the rules, and got over-enthusiastic in cutting down the text to fit. You can be too concise, and these rules prove it.

    Unfortunately a similar, though not as extreme, problem existed in Academy's other main game, Conflict of Heroes. (Let's not go into them completely changing how the game works from one volume of the game to the next.) So, this looks to be a pervasive problem in how Academy writes their rules.

  • The cards. Besides the wording issues I've mentioned, I have the feeling the game is pretty dependent on certain cards being used for events. Given the size of the deck, it's likely many of these events may never be seen during a particular game, and one side's fortunes may be completely drained as a result. Now, I've only played the campaign once, so this is just a gut-feel call, but I've got a feeling they could do more with the deck. Things like “The Poles get card #x in their hand during turn 2” sort of improvements. It's not at all unlikely for critical events to go by as combat card draws, never to be seen again.

Final feelings

This game rocks. Despite the horrendous ruleset, this game plays very well. You constantly feel like you're fighting uphill, even when things are going your way. The various design features mesh well. You're always thinking things could turn at any moment. To me, this is a sign of a good design. What they need to do is spend three months with blind playtesters fishing out all the inconsistencies and omissions, and they'll have a winning design. Bump the rulebook up by four pages to handle the omissions. (Example: it never says what directions you're forbidden to retreat. From the way the rules are written, you can retreat from an area in the same direction the other side entered the area. While this is not the case, you wouldn't know it from the rules.)

Mike toyed with calling this his game of the year for 2011. I don't recall if he finally settled on it or not. While it didn't win that award from me (that goes to Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg, not that I played a whole lot of games in 2011), it warranted consideration. Just expect you're going to be doing a lot of rules research while you play the first few times. At least until they fix the rules.